A Gooner Is Born…

That’d be me in the front with the black hair.

I still remember finding out about Arsenal for the very first time. Growing up in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early ‘80s meant that I lived in a soccer, football wasteland. Come to think of it, the only sports that really attracted anyone’s attention were baseball and American “football.” I had been playing the real kind for a few years, but at that point, it felt like a hobby more than a sport. We had no professional league to speak of, and we had no knowledge of or access to international football.

I only knew Pelé, for example, as a guy who must have been pretty good at one point because he played in the North American Soccer League, which went defunct in 1984. I only heard about Maradona’s “hand of God” in a story buried in our newspaper’s sports section days later. Like I said, I lived in a football wasteland.

At any rate, it was somewhere around 1981-82, and we had just gotten cable . To that point in my admittedly young life, I had subsisted on the thin gruel known as Duran Duran, not yet knowing that actual music existed. I would stay up into the wee hours to watch MTV and scroll through whatever else was available. During one of these late night fests, I was scrolling through channels in a daze when I stumbled across actual football. The idea that professional football existed blew my mind, and the fact that it was on TV blew me away even further. At any rate, the picture was pretty grainy, and I could barely make out the players, nor could I understand the broadcasters very well due to their accents.

Still, I awoke from my stupor.When the table flashed on-screen, I snapped to full attention. Amid a sea of unfamiliar or downright confusing names, at least to these Yankee ears, standing out in that hodgepodge of cities and -hams and -wiches and and -tons, was a name seemed to shine forth like a beacon: Arsenal. Even at my tender age, I knew the definition of the word, and it floored me to learn that a club could have any other name besides the city in which it play its home games. What a perfect, perfect name for a team. I was hooked. Further helping matters was that they were not in first place, appealing to my early preference for underdogs. Had I known then that Arsenal is hardly some pluckly little underdog, thinks might have turned out differently, and I might have ended up rooting for Sheffield Wednesday or something. There but for the grace of God…

When the highlights came back on, I was drawn in more deeply in the Gunners’ embrace through the uniforms, that pitch-perfect shade of vivid red and high-contrast white not only just works for my vision (I have mild red-green color blindness), it’s also bold and stylish. Put it all together, and the romance flowered and has bloomed ever since. Each night, still too young to realize that the First Division was more of a weekly thing, not a daily one, I’d turn to ESPN hoping to see more Arsenal action. I figured it out after a week or two when I finally saw that highlights only came out on the weekends, and in a five-minute installment at the end of the broadcast. Think of that—I subsisted for years on little more than a minute or two of Arsenal-specific news a week. I could get no names, no statistics, no information of any kind about Arsenal’s players, not to mention anyone else, except whom Arsenal played, how they did, and where they stood.

Ever since then, I have followed this club through thick and thin, surviving on a meager trickle of ESPN highlights and something called microfiche in the days before the internet and the growing popularity of football in America prompted newspapers, magazines, television and, finally, the internet, finally saw fit to cover European soccer. I’m sad to say, therefore, that I missed almost all of the drama and glory of 1989 or the Invincibles, except in those little bits and chunks filtered through a flimsy coverage that didn’t do the team’s style or achievements justice. Now, instead of hoping to get to ESPN in time to catch a 30-second rundown of the best Prem League games, as I did in the 1980s and early 1990s, I can actually watch complete matches. The difference has been not unlike going from flirting with someone through text messages to actually embracing and kissing. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I hope to some day soon make it to the Emirates to see a game. I love history and roots and origins, so it breaks my heart that I’ll never get a chance to see one at Highbury.

In one bizarre twist, the father of one of my good friends got transferred to London in the summer of 1983. Our host was a Chelsea fan and the family were staying not far from Stamford Bridge. Had it not been June, and had Chelsea not been absolute rubbish (mired in the Second Division for several years), I might have ended up…a Chelsea fan [shudder]. Might I have ended up a unctuous, obnoxious, superficial twat who’s sated himself at the trough of Abramovichian success? Might I have ended up a mourinista who derived juvenile joy at bettering Wenger’s squads? Perhaps.

However, I would never trade what I’ve had and will continue to have for what they have. Am I crazy? Yeah, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The only brushes with glory I’ve come close to experience have been those three FA Cups we won towards the end of Arsène’s tenure. The 2015-2016 season was agonising; I really and truly thought we would win the league. The 2022-23 was heart-breaking, but by this point, I’d learned enough about the rhythms of the season to remain sanguine at the same time. Some would call me naive due to that sanguinary attitude, but what can I say? It seems that supporting this club and being a Gooner (if I have earned the right to call myself one) might just be in my blood.

It’s the silly season. It’s exhausting to cover the ins and outs of whom we’re interested in, who’s interested in us, and how close or how far we are to agreeing on personal terms & fees. I hope this little vignette gave you something else to think about. If you have a story about how you came to support this club, please let me know. You could share a quick snapshot in the comments-section below or, if you’re interested in my publishing your story, email me at jfshay@gmail.com.

Average rating 4.6 / 5. Vote count: 20

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

11 thoughts on “A Gooner Is Born…

  1. Eoin ó Conchobhair

    Good stuff, Jon. Great to learn a bit about the lad behind the blog. For me it’s Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary, John Devine, Pat Jennings. Simple as that.

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      Aha! I found out about the Irish players somewhat after the fact once the internet made research easier. Brady is my favorite for several obvious reasons but I too was a left-footed, dark-haired Irish midfielder (my Twitter handle is @LeftLegOLiam).

  2. Positive pete

    Wonderful story Jon.Just goes to show how being a “ gooner” for whatevever reason or however it happens is almost a religious experience once it occurs & no matter what ,stays with you for life.Arsenal truly are a Global club with a unique identity.Hopefully in seasons to come you get to fulfill your wishes to see Arsenal on top of the world & visit the shrine of the Emirates.

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      Cheers! I appreciate the religious, spiritual element – I feel a bit prodigal in having discovered the club in my youth, “wandered” away for years, and found my way back to it. I’m making plans for the pilgrimage soon…

  3. consolsbob

    Very nice, Jon. Good stuff. The Emirates is fine but it’s a concrete bowl. Highbury was beautiful. Going with my Dad and later with friends was an experience however turgid the football might be and it was at times.

    I hated leaving the place although I didn’t actually cry. I am British, remember. Personally, I believe that we should have stayed there. I see clubs like West Ham making the same mistake and now Everton, leaving their grounds that are steeped in history. Really, football is nothing but history unless you swallow the dreams of the clubs owned by or run by oil states.

    By the way, if you call it football, you should call the kit a ‘strip’. Our armed forces wear uniforms.

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      I confess to a lot of ambivalence around the Emirates. On one hand, it seems almost imperative that clubs move to larger, more-modern grounds to become or remain competitive. I can’t imagine us competing with a capacity of 38,419, not to mention the modern fans’ expectations around various amenities, luxuries, concessions (on whatever level that last word is defined…). Speaking as one of those not from Islington, I’m am also conflicted about the globalisation. It’s fantastic to see Gooners from around the world, but there’s inevitably a dilution effect. For lack of a better example, I grew up with a local deli/sandwich shop known as Potbelly. It was the only one in the world. You can now find a Potbelly anywhere in America. It’s convenient and reassuring but also less meaningful. Something’s lost. Again, not a perfect example.

      My ongoing education continues as I learn to use “strip”. This post, I’ll admit, is from my pre-blogging days. The original version reflects far more American English than British English. I’m never sure how hard to push the British version; on one hand, I don’t want to sound ignorant (using terms like soccer, offsides, uniform, etc.) and don’t want to sound like I’m trying too hard (-ise instead of -ize, -our instead of -or, different to instead of different than, etc.). A lot of to ponder there…

  4. A Simple Truth

    Jon—just over your northern border in Canada, where the monarchy still wielded some fairly significant parliamentary influence, I had a handful of close friends who moved here from England whilst they were still infants/preschoolers…one of those individuals, whom I actually met playing on our city’s travel squad, grew up in a household of multi-generational Arsenal supporters…the initial draw wasn’t so much the on-field product, but the gatherings at his house to at first listen then eventually watch the matches, which were being religiously sent from the old country…it was amongst this most colourful cast of characters I was likewise introduced to Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Benny Hill and real-life stories about the infamous Kray brothers…anyways, my adoration of the club grew exponentially in the years that followed, which was made infinitely easier when matches were made available for tv viewing in the early days of “pirated” cable boxes

    since the time of my initial introduction to the Arsenal, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a multitude of live League matches at various venues, including one at the Highbury, and a handful of CL affairs abroad…much in the same vein as the previous poster, I so wish that they had never left the fan-friendly confines, from an intimate viewing capacity, of the Highbury, even though I totally understand what precipitated just such a move…of course, if I had been privy to the Wenger-inspired new stadium ruse, which had far more to do with his own selfish interests than competing with the best and brightest, then I would have led the protests myself

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      I’ll always be envious of those who’ve grown up with the club amidst other supporters. To date, I’m like a lonely sentry on the outposts of an empire. Yes, there’s a group of Gooners that meets at a pub to watch the matches, but I’m too old to get to a pub at 6am even if I’m limiting myself to coffee and an omelette. 20-somethings quaffing pints is just too much at that hour.

      I express some similar misgivings about the move to the Emirates. Necessary on some levels, regrettable on others. One of the memories I’ll always carry is seeing Thierry Henry kiss the ground at Highbury after his hat-trick in his final match there.

      As to your comment regarding Wenger’s selfish interests, it raises classic philosophical questions about intents and outcomes. How do we measure them? What degree of self-interest is acceptable/tolerable/appropriate? In an alternate universe, one in which Abramovich and Mansour didn’t come along, would Wenger’s intention and vision be measured differently in light of the presumed realisation of that vision? And so on…

  5. Andy

    Great post Jon.
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, accessed via “The Highbury Library”, which lists many different Arsenal blogs. I don’t read them all, but I always click on yours as your views and humour is very similar to myself. I was surprised to learn that you are in the US and not a regular at the games, (a compliment on your Arsenal knowledge).
    I started going to games, as often as I could, in the late 80’s when you could get in to Highbury for £5 on the gate, oh how times have changed! I was then a silver member at The Emirates for many years until I moved to the other end of the country, where I am now what is known in the UK as “an armchair supporter”. I still consider myself an avid fan, and much to my wife’s annoyance, never miss a game, and my weekends are always planned around them.
    Unlike some of the others on here, I think the Emirates is a spectacular stadium, and was totally necessary to move the club forward to where we are now. I’ve done lower tier, upper tier, club level and had the odd game in one of the boxes and never have been disappointed with the incredible facilities, comfy seats or the ease at which you can get a half time beer!
    Anyway, keep up the good work and roll on the start of the new season where we take our game to the next level! Come on you Gunners!!!

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      It’s great to have a “long time listener, first time caller” moment (albeit in the “long time reader, first time commenter” version). I don’t know if you were reading anything from before my hiatus (I kind of faded out in 2018 for various reasons and resumed back in September 2021). We do seem to be in similar boats, and I count myself lucky that most matches are on and done with before my wife and kids wake up.

      I’m deeply envious of seeing that you got to see matches at Highbury – and just £5! That won’t even get you a pint these days.

      I’m glad to connect, and I hope to hear more from you in the future!

      1. Andy

        I’ve only been reading blogs for the last couple of years John, since I moved away from London. It’s a good way to get my fix in between matches.
        I had to build a “man cave” in the garden at my new house so my wife doesn’t have to listen to me swearing at the tv like an angry teenager! (I’m 53 now and probably need to grow up!).
        And you’re right, £5 doesn’t buy much these days!!


Leave a Reply